‘Is it safe?’ HFD concerned about River Oaks high-rise

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by Courtney Zubowski / KHOU 11 News I-Team

khou.com

Posted on May 20, 2014 at 10:31 PM

HOUSTON -- You can’t get much chichier than this neighborhood -- River Oaks. It’s one of the ritziest spots in the city of Houston. Fancy homes. Fancy cars.

But there’s something some people living there don’t fancy -- a 17-story high-rise that sits right in the heart of it.

It’s called River Oaks Luxury Apartments and it’s located in the 3400 block of Westheimer.

“It was horrifying. It was just horrifying,” said BK Smith, who called the place home for four years. “If you tell people the reality of living there they either think you’re insane for living there, or that can’t possibly be or that you are certainly being dramatic and exaggerating."

She said talking to management was useless, especially since she says she went through 14 managers in her time there.

“No water, no air, insufficient plumbing,” she said.

The KHOU 11 News I-Team obtained video from inside the high-rise.

We viewed water dripping from the ceiling and into an apartment. The resident who lived in that apartment explained that it was the second leak in her apartment in a month.

The I-Team also viewed water dripping out of the light fixtures in the lobby and pouring on the floor.

A high-rise employee was cleaning up the mess.

“When the water pipes burst in your ceiling you had holes in your ceiling,” said Smith.

Last May she says she went 10 days without air conditioning.

With the help of a lawyer she says she got out of her lease at the end of last year.

“They literally ran us out,” she said.

But the worst problem says former tenant Kris Abercrombie, was something she had suspected about the building which was a lack of fire safety.

“I asked the fire marshal to go out there and do an inspection,” she told the KHOU 11 News I-Team.

According to HFD inspections reports, when inspectors went to the building in January they found the high-rise hadn’t had a working fire alarm system for a month.

So how dangerous is that?

Ask a firefighter and he’ll tell you a high-rise blaze can be a life-threatening nightmare.

“It’s not just a danger to citizens and occupants, it’s also a danger to firefighters,” said Capt. Ruy Lozano who is the public information officer for the Houston Fire Department.

KHOU: “Based on the pattern, would you want you or one of your family members living at 3435 Westheimer?”

Lozano: “I wouldn’t advise that with that many egregious violations. I wouldn’t advise that.”

Because the I-Team discovered the recent fire alarm break down wasn’t the first.

We found for years they’d been cited for all sorts of fire safety problems, some of them repeated over and over again.

So, we had to ask.

KHOU: “How have they not been shut down?”

Lozano: “It’s very difficult to shut down an occupancy because of one -- what are you going to do with the residents that quick in a high rise? That’s a large amount of people.”

Lozano also added that there is a legal process involved and added it’s been hard to hold someone accountable.

Jeffrey J. Cohen is the CEO of a Boston-located company called Metropolitan Properties of America which has a subsidiary that owns the property and others across the country.

A representative for Cohen declined our request for an interview, but a representative for MPA, Nick Connors sent us the following statement:

“The River Oaks High-rise is an historic address that we have worked hard to maintain and improve since acquiring the property. Our highest priority is to protect the health, safety and well-being of our residents and we back that commitment with a 24-hour concierge and a full staff to respond to any concerns reported by residents. We are proud of the work of our staff and partners do to ensure the safety and well-being of the residents and the property every day.”

Connors also told the I-Team that the fire alarm system is now working.

As far as the flooding he said that the pipes in older buildings do break, but when leaks are identified they are worked on.

He also confirmed that there has been high management turnover.

Meanwhile, because of the I-Team’s investigation, the Houston Fire Dept. is re-examining how often they inspect high-rise buildings.

Currently, each building is inspected every two years.

Now, they are discussing inspecting certain buildings more often if they have a history of problems.

Inspectors say they will return to the building in the next few weeks.

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